MySpace didn’t become the leading social network until mid-2006, 3 years after its launch. That year was, ironically, the peak of the service’s success. Facebook opened itself up to anybody over thirteen years of age just a few months later and the exodus hasn’t really slowed down since. While the merits of switching to Facebook over MySpace were both obvious (it doesn’t hurt my face to look at it) and subtle (Facebook is less… umm… “urban“), the argument ultimately boiled down to some very simple logic. People joined because their friends did. Complaints about the current popular service don’t matter nearly as much as the selling points of its future replacement.
As it stands there are three main reasons you might hear somebody complain about Facebook.
This has been the debate that has sparked all the talk around the Interwebs about why Facebook is no longer a viable social networking platform. Never mind that Twitter has been inherently public by design since the day that it launched. Never mind that Facebook has gone to great (even if intentionally confusing) lengths to allow you to control how it handles the information you publish to its servers. Even the Senate has weighed in on the utter seriousness of privacy on Facebook. There are real debates going on right now that will shape the future of the Internet for generations to come and all the greater web surfing community can seem to talk about is whether or not Facebook is allowed to give you the option of sharing your data with others. To me the whole argument of the privacy debacle on Facebook can be boiled down to one pretty obvious sentiment: People don’t like the bait and switch.
lack of integration:
In the new world of social graphs and APIs, it would be a snap for facebook to cross-publish my status updates across multiple platforms (and vice versa), but the top level services don’t want to compete with each other on their own turf. Google buzz was recently accused of delaying twitter updates for the sole fact that letting users tweet in real time on Google’s platform would overwhelm their own service.
Where there is freedom from standardization, there are constant reminders of why standardization was implemented in the first place. While Facebook was smart to do away with custom tiling backgrounds and auto-playing audio tracks (not to mention the implementation of their vast application framework), the folks who have the time or interest in fighting for a replacement are folks who like to tinker. Facebook may market themselves as an “open” company, but when it comes to making changes to the core product, the doors are shut. This is not without good reason as far as Facebook is concerned. You don’t have to look around long until you’ll find sympathy for the argument that the true mass market (as opposed to the leveraged influence of the tech-obsessed early adopters) could care less who’s in control, so long as it works and looks cool.
While these reasons are all well and good, there is still the little problem of adopting an alternative (not that something viable even exists to adopt quite yet). Facebook has a lock on more than 400 million active users. If they were a country, Facebook would be the third most populous in the world. As I mentioned earlier, the shortcomings listed above can only really serve as a catalyst to get people talking about change. Actively convincing people to move to another service is going to require actively promoting a new landscape, not filling in the holes people found in the old one. So what does it take to convince an entire tribe of people to burn their Facebook flag and make land on a different network? There are, believe it or not, a number of aspiring Facebook killers already looming on the horizon, and they all seem to share a few common threads.
The Next Facebook is open:
Nearly everyone talking about the future of social networking is also talking about some configuration of what is now referred to as the open stack. This is a set of tools that, as Joseph Smarr puts it, take care of three basic concepts important to social networking: Who I am, Who I know, and What’s Going On. Using open technologies to establish these three things within any given social network ensure a number of things. Some of the things possible using the open stack as a foundation for social networking include an identity that is owned by the individual (as opposed to the corporation) as well as data that is portable between networks (friends lists, contact information, timelines).
The Next Facebook is decentralized
Another trend that seems to be coming up quite a bit in the conversation about who our next social networking overlord might be has a lot to do with the fact that we don’t much care for the idea of overlords. Enter the concept of distributed social networking. Instead of a single website being responsible for managing all of the social data and connections out there, a distributed system envisions everybody taking responsibility for their own node on the network. There are a number of different ways that this is being attempted (many of them are described in more detail below), but for a moment I’d like to look at a somewhat related example, so that we might be able to put the distributed model into terms that we are a bit more familiar with. Picture for a moment the contrast between purchasing music from ITunes and downloading (pirating) it for free from a private Bit Torrent tracker.
On the one hand you have ITunes:
- Owned by a giant multinational corporation.
- Interested more in their bottom line than true consumer satisfaction.
- Chargers you more per song than you used to pay when you were actually receiving physical property for your dollar.
- Selection is limited to Apple’s private licensing deals
And on the other hand you have Bit Torrent:
- No true hierarchy
- Move easily from one market to another
- Music works on all devices (no strings attached)
- Lets you listen to music without financial commitment (consumer decides how payment should be rendered, if at all).
Much in the same way that there were concrete benefits for consumers who moved away from traditional music sales, there are very similar benefits to taking control of your social identity away from corporate interests. A distributed system has the potential to give users an unprecedented amount of control over how their data will be seen by others. In addition, if you have full control over your social identity, it becomes easier to bring that information with you from place to place when and where you want it. Some of the benefits of such a system include the following:
- No need to feel permanently committed to a single service
- Easily share your whole social identity with friends, not just service specific portions
- Bring your data with you to other sites/services without the need to ‘start over’
- It’s like Facebook, but open.
Why None of this will Fix Privacy:
The real irony in all of this is that should a Facebook coup really make any headway, the history books will name privacy as the number one reason for the groundswell that led to whatever replaces it. Why is this ironic you ask? Because none of this is likely to alleviate our concerns about privacy in a satisfying way.
One of the most effective marketing tactics you are likely to see in an attempt to get you to move away from Facebook will be to offer a platform that allows you to continue to use Facebook. This sort of setup, commonly referred to as aggregation, envisions a distributed system that simply allows you to pull some or all of your data from the myriad of sites you network on and manage them all from one place. So now your friends can see your Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc. all by visiting your “node” on the distributed network.
While the distributed networking kids are taking security of these platforms very seriously, they seem to be looking over the fact that adding one very secure platform on top of countless others doesn’t really simplify your privacy setup, it complicates it. In this kind of distributed system, my Flickr sets are still stored on Yahoo’s servers, my status updates are still sitting at Facebook, and so on. If Facebook decides to change my privacy settings in the dark of the night, I’m still going to have to deal with that just the same as I do today.
Bugs and Fixes:
One nice thing about Facebook is that they sort of handle security for you. When a bug lets people monitor your “private” chats with your friends or something totally absurd like that Facebook takes chat offline, fixes the problem , and you probably never even knew there was an issue. Many of the systems being worked on today are self-hosted software platforms. Much like people download and install WordPress to their own servers to manage a blog, people would download and install software that would let them manage their own node on the social network.
I only use the WordPress example above because we would undoubtedly see the same kind of security troubles popping up on our social networking nodes as we do now across the blogosphere. Self-Hosted networking software would need to be updated. By people. Who have shit to do. Wordpress sites get hacked or maimed in magnificently large numbers every day (Certainly not to the fault of the developers, who have built what amounts to the easiest and most brilliant updating system on the market – free or otherwise). To suggest that putting software maintenance into the hands of normal computer users (our moms are on Facebook) would better protect our data would be misleading at best.
It’s the Internet, Stupid.
One of the overlooked arguments that have been getting increasing traction in recent weeks is quite simply that privacy shouldn’t be a concern, because you should use social networking responsibly and not post compromising materials to the public cloud.
“But Facebook isn’t public,” they’ll say. ”It’s my data.”
I’ve got some news for you. Facebook is whatever it wants to be, and unless you haven’t been paying attention to the trend (which you have, or you wouldn’t be aware it was even an issue), they’re taking your data public, one kilobyte at a time.
The Internet is a very public place. And even when you think you’ve got your privacy settings all figured out, somebody will change the terms of service. Or a server will get hacked. Or some multinational corporation will buy the data. If you don’t want your social interactions known, stop putting them in the public sphere.
Ummm… I thought you were going to tell us about the next Facebook?
Oh, right. So here’s the long and short of it. There is, at the time of this writing, no true contender to speak of. Nobody that is yet clever enough to slay the mighty privacy-eating dragon. That being said, there are a number of projects out there that are gearing up to try.
Appleseed was started in 2004. That was probably before you had ever heard the word Facebook. Fast forward 6 years, and you’ve probably still never heard the word Appleseed. One of the earliest attempts at creating an open social network serves as a prime example that even though there is an ever-growing army of people working to tear the walls down around whatever social networking app people happen to be using at any given time, there is little evidence that any open alternatives have made so much as a dent in the armor of the status quo. Appleseed is still in beta (version 0.7.3 at the time of this writing), is open source, and uses a distributed model that is self-hosted.
Here’s one more for the history books. DiSo’s strategy was to attach itself to a platform that was already popular. Their main contribution was a WordPress plugin that would use the already established user-base of the WordPress community to serve as a launchpad for their distributed network. All of this would have been fine had the WordPress community signed up in droves. They didn’t.
one social web
A sort of hybrid between aggregation and stand-alone distributed networking as far as we can tell. This is the first of two items in the list that haven’t been released yet (i.e. we can’t declare them dead on arrival). There’s talk that they’ll be launching their own social network this summer and allowing willing networks to plug in to their system so data can be shared across the board. This sounds great and all, but without Mark Zuckerberg getting in line to rework Facebook for compliance, we don’t see anyone taking too much notice.
The present antithesis to Facebook is almost certainly marching to the beat of Diaspora’s drumbeat. A group of four college kids asked people to pledge $10,000 so they could build a distributed networking software this summer. They closed the doors to further donations after collecting just a hair over $200,000. Let the coding begin.
By September 2010, the team says it will release the first iteration of the project, fully open-sourced under the AGPL. Here’s the feature they say we’ll see:
- Full-fledged communications between Seeds (Diaspora instances)
- End to end GPG
- External Service Scraping of most major services (reclaim your data)
- Version 1 of Diaspora’s API with documentation
- Public GitHub repository of all Diaspora code
As far as I can tell we’ve managed to show that there is reasonable discontent with Facebook’s features, but hardly enough enthusiasm to make so much as a dent in the growth of the world’s most popular networking site. While there are some newcomers on the horizon, it’s plain to see that similar feature sets in the past haven’t inspired revolt. Unless there is a word of mouth campaign that is exponentially greater than the one used to unseat Myspace as the leader of the pack a couple of years ago, we’re likely going to continue talking about replacements, as opposed to actually replacing anything, for some time to come.